What Drives Women to Return to the Workforce

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What Drives Women to Return to the Workforce

Although each woman may phrase her reasons for wanting to return to work slightly differently, we’ve identified seven major motivators for relaunching, with many women experiencing a combination of these.

1. Money
Not surprisingly, number one on the list for most women is money. Although your husband may have earned enough to permit you to take time off while your children were young, you may not be able to afford this set up any longer. Or, you may be concerned about your financial future. These concerns may not force you to get a job tomorrow, but they may play, more or less subtly, into the calculus of your thinking about returning to work.

Over the last few years, in particular, many husbands have encountered career hiccups, for perhaps the first time in their work lives. Even if you managed to stay home during these episodes of reduced or non-existent spousal incomes, you may have vowed not to put your families at the mercy of one employer again.

And, for better or worse, there are also many of you who are currently single again, whether through widowhood or divorce, who may have enough of a cushion for the next few years but who know, or believe, that the money won’t last forever.

2. Validation
When you left work in the first place, you probably couched it as “a good family decision.” Unlike the traditional housewives Betty Friedan described in The Feminine Mystique, you chose to be home after proving yourself quite capable of handling a demanding career. Friedan’s women never had the opportunity to test their professional potential and experience career success. The big surprise is that despite previous professional accomplishments, today’s women who decide to relaunch after taking extended leave from promising careers often experience a kind of delayed and watered down version of what Friedan’s women felt. It is not unusual to experience self-doubt about whether you can still make it professionally, or whether, while at home, you’ve lost something critical to success. How do you overcome these feelings of self doubt? You need the validation that will come from resuming your career.

According to Laura, after she quit her job as an advertising executive, “It would kill me not to have an occupation to fill in on forms.” For those of you without pressing financial need who are returning to the workforce after raising children, the job itself is the validation. The bottom line is you need to make money again and contribute to the family income, NOT for the purchasing power of the income, but rather for the legitimacy and validation that simply earning it provides.

3. Leveling the Marriage Playing Field
Pulling in your own income and contributing in a material way to family finances can do wonders for making you feel self sufficient, confident and independent within your marriage. Resuming your work status means spending decisions replace spending negotiations. You simply put less pressure on yourself to be thrifty when you carry some of the financial burden. You more easily give yourself “permission” to splurge occasionally.

Mallory, a relauncher who started her own Web site design business relates, “I was the fourth kid in my family growing up, and my family had to scrape for me to go to college. So I always had discomfort with not being in control financially.” Holly, a textile artist and weaver who relaunched as an art teacher for the disabled, explained her delight at receiving her first paycheck: “I told my husband and kids I was taking everyone out to dinner when my first paycheck came in. And I did! It was a terrific feeling to be earning my own money again.”  

4. Intellectual Stimulation
Most women do enjoy their maternal roles, but being at home full time makes some go stir crazy. For those, a lack of intellectual excitement in your lives drives you to think about re-entering.

Lily, a former brand manager turned consultant cited, among other reasons the “pride and sense of accomplishment I get from work.” Susan, who had been at a large management-consulting firm and relaunched by working for the board of education of a major city, mentions a common theme: “I like working, feeling connected to people, using skills, having an impact, being challenged. I don’t like drifting.”

5. Avoiding Empty Nest Syndrome
Although some of you might wonder if it would be better to wait until the kids are in high school or college before going back to work, many of you may be haunted by the specter of the unfulfilled women of your mothers’ generation. According to Maxine, a former real estate executive, “I see a lot of at home mothers whose kids have gone to college and they are lost. They are leading lives of quiet desperation.”

6. Serving as a Role Model
How do your children view you if you’ve been home since they were born or since they were young? Do they see you as an intellectual being, a warm, loving soul, or even just a servant? How do you want them to view you? One of Alison’s motivations for returning was a desire for her children, especially her daughters, to see that there was a dimension to her life that went beyond running the household.

In the March 2005 issue of “Parenting,” Jill Johnson, a mother of three boys returning to work after five years at home, said she wanted them to see that “mommies can go out and earn a living just like Daddies can.”* Lindsay, a chemical engineer, wanted to demonstrate to her three daughters “that you can remake yourself at any point in your life.” The unspoken implication is that if you wait until your children are all grown up before you try to go back to work, your kids will never observe that it’s possible to both work and mother.

7. Ambition
You may have been hugely ambitious early in your career, but when you made the decision to stay home, your family commitments combined with, in some cases, diminished confidence may have whittled down your ambition. For the relauncher, the difficult part is balancing re-emerging ambition with the reality of daily life at home. Dinner’s not the only thing cooking on the back burner; your ambition probably is too! Recognizing you have unfulfilled career ambitions is one of the first steps of a successful relaunch. When we tell you that relaunch time is time for you, part of that message is it’s time to unleash your stifled ambition. You don’t have to announce it to the whole world. The only one who has to know is you.

*”Parenting Mom Squad,” Parenting (March 2005), p 106.

By Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin for w2wlink.com